One of the biggest challenges facing those trying to get the public to understand the severity of the global warming problem is that there is so much bad information out there masquerading as science, and so little good science being presented to the public at large in an accessible way. The trouble is that as a rule scientists mostly just talk to themselves, and in a language that most of us can’t understand. This is a rule that has to be broken, otherwise they’ll continue to have the same kind of problems they’ve had trying to explain why the “theory” of evolution is something you can take to the bank, despite the fact that it’s a “theory.” You know, like the theory of gravity.
Sometimes its relatively easy to weed out the bad information just by using the common sense “duck test” (if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck….). Articles that contain good information, for example, are usually full of references to peer-reviewed scientific journals. These are journals where a scientist can’t get something published until a panel of “peers” reviews it for methodology and reasonableness. Articles no with science or bad science rarely have references, and when they do, the references are to articles in non-scientific publications, to interviews with individual scientists (no peer review there!), or to “studies” by “institutes” that, it turns out, get all their funding from companies or organizations with an ax to grind. One piece I saw that was trying to debunk the science of climate change, a piece that unfortunately got a lot of air time, was full of footnotes – pretty impressive-looking until you got to the footnote list at the end and realized that the main source for the “science” was an “opinion piece” on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.
The most insidious misinformation, I think, comes from those studies from supposed think-tanks, “institutes” with impressive sounding names like “The George C. Marshall Institute” and “The Competitive Enterprise Institute” for example. These institutes are experts at dressing up their misinformation to sound like the real thing. Taking their cue from the Republican party (no coincidence there!), they have been attempting win the argument by controlling the language of the debate.
Okay, back to the need for scientist’s to fight smoke with fire. Just recently, the Royal Society, Britain’s top scientific academy, wrote a public letter (click to read it) to ExxonMobil taking the company to task for publishing misleading scientific information, specifically naming a piece in ExxonMobil’s “Corporate Citizenship Report” that claims that there are no objective studies showing that global warming is caused by human actions. After pointing out the huge number of such objective studies that have, in fact, been published, including one co-authored by one of ExxonMobil’s own scientists, the letter says: “It is very difficult to reconcile the misrepresentations of climate change science in these documents with ExxonMobil’s claim to be an industry leader.” The letter also points out that, in addition to its own misrepresentations, the company has given $2.9 million to fund 39 different groups that routinely misrepresent the science of climate change to the public, and asks the company to stop funding such groups. [In fairness, ExxonMobil also gave money to 24 organizations who do present the climate change situation accurately.]
I applaud the Royal Society’s willingness to send (and make public) this letter, and I hope scientific organizations the world over with take heed and start to get publicly involved. Of course, it helps that the British government doesn’t have its head in the sand about global warming, unlike another large, English-speaking country I could name…..